Sunday, September 25, 2011

Feed Yourself - Fall Gardening

The length of your growing season is mostly determined by your location.  To find out what zone you are in you should start by looking up the "Hardiness Zone" that you live in.  Go to Hardiness Zone Map to find this out. This will give you a general idea of what you can grow and the length of your normal growing season. Within a given area there are also "micro-climates". The south facing side of a hill, for example, will become warm enough to grow certain crops earlier than a north facing slope 100 yards away. 

Determining the aspects of your micro-climate come through research, record keeping, and experience at that location. For example, because my little garden is surrounded by buildings, which absorb and hold warmth from the sun, my garden space naturally has an extended season.  I didn't write anything down but my experience from the last two years tells me I can continue to grow cold hardy plants well into October.  With some simple "growing season extension techniques" I should be able to continue harvesting lettuce and carrots into November.  Now, keep in mind that I am located at a latitude equal to that of mid-Quebec, Canada.  I am far, far, north here.  But lucky for the Dutch, the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the equator up the west coast of Europe and that keeps my weather more like that of Virginia.

Radish Sprouts 25 September
If you want to continue growing food into the cooler weather you have to understand your climate and pick plants that can grow in your climate.  In general terms, plants that do not flower or need to be pollinated do best.  These are your leafy greens (lettuces and cabbages), root vegetables (carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, onions), and some peas. Even within those groupings there are varieties that can take the cold better than others.  Subscribe to a couple seed catalogs and read the plants descriptions for that information.  If you grow non-hybrid plants you can save the seeds of the plants that do the best in your garden and over time actually develop plants that are uniquely suited to your exact garden conditions.  I have never stayed in any one place long enough to do this but I will once I retire and settle down.

Above you can see some radish sprouts from seeds I planted ten days ago.  I planted them in the space where my lettuce had been growing.  Lettuce is a mildly heavy feeder so you need to add nutrients to the soil if you are going to immediately follow lettuce with another crop.  I worked in some compost but since this is likely my last garden here I was not too worried about building up the soil.

Butterhead Lettuce 25 September
Here I reseeded the area where my tomato plant stood and my last batch of radishes grew.  I had heavily mulched the tomato plant with used potting soil and just scratched that into the top two inches of the soil. Lettuce seeds are really tiny and hard to plant individually so I usually just  roll them between my fingers while moving down a row.  I will have to thin out the rows in a couple weeks so the plants are a couple inches apart.  In both these new plots I sprinkled light colored sand to help reflect more light up onto the foliage of the plant.  This gives them a little extra boost in the shorter days of fall. The rough sand also helps to reduce the slugs and snails; they don't like to slim across sand.

My carrots are now about one month old and doing great.  The greens are about 6-7 inches high.  I do need to thin them out a little but I am waiting as long as I can so there might be something there to eat. I should get about three dozen carrots from this patch and my experience has been that home grown carrots are the sweetest carrots you will ever eat. With some covering on cold nights I will be eating carrots well into November if nothing goes wrong.

As the weather here gets colder I will start to use some of the many techniques I know to protect my plants and extend the growing season. This is a very small garden so it won't be too hard.  Come back later and see what I am doing.

I do a lot of reading and recently read several studies and reports indicating that the earth has just about reached its food production limit.  While the world's population keeps increasing at a geometric rate the ability to produce food only increases at a linear rate.  There is less than four months worth of grain stored in all of the world's warehouses to tide us over in case of an emergency.  Four months is not a long time.  The price of quality food will continue to increase faster than raises in your paycheck.  You must learn how to grow your own food to insure food stability in the coming years.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bread - The Staff of Life

Bread is one of the most commonly eaten foods in the world.  Basic bread is simply flour (of almost any sort) mixed with water and then cooked in some manner (baking, frying, boiling, steamed, or whatever).  Extra ingredients such as salt, yeast, sugar, milk, egg, fruits and nuts, etc. add flavors and textures.  Every culture seems to have its own type of bread.  In the US, white bread is the most common though almost all others are available if you know where to look.

As the prices for ingredients, transportation costs, several layers of middlemen, and other factors go up so has the price of bread. When I was a kid in the 1960's a loaf of plain old white bread was about 20-24 cents for a one pound loaf. Yes, a quarter was worth more back then.  If you found a quarter you were a rich kid.  A quarter could buy you five candy bars, or 25 pieces of penny candy, or a bottled soda and a pack of cupcakes, or a McDonalds hamburger and a drink.

In July 2011, The national average retail price of white bread was $1.513, up 2.3¢ per lb from June and up 15.3¢ from July 2010. In 2007 there were widespread "Tortilla Riots" in Mexico when the price of a basic food commodity, tortillas, increased by 50% to 8.43 pesos a kilo (2.4 pounds).  In 2010 they increased again to 12 pesos (about one US dollar) per kilo.  This was mainly caused by the steep increase in corn prices partly in response to diversion of millions of pounds of corn to the ethanol industry.  Farmers' costs for seed, fertilizer, and fuel are not likely to go down any time soon so grain prices will continue to go up.  But farmers' costs are only a small portion of the price increases the consumer is having to deal with. All the processors and handlers in between the farmer and your supermarket add their costs and that is what is killing you at the checkout counter.  What can you do?

You have a couple options and all of them require work on your part.  One option is to find a discount store that sells "day old" bread.  Supermarkets only keep "fresh" bread on the shelves for so many days and then it gets pulled and replaced by new product.  That "old" bread goes to secondary markets such as Big Lots and the various Dollar Stores.  Most of the major bakeries (Holsum, Sunbeam, Pepperidge Farm, Arnold, etc) all have bakery outlets in the towns where they have bakeries or distribution centers.  I grew up on products from the Day Old bread outlet on Lehigh Street in Allentown.  If my mom bought stuff there it had to be cheap; she was raising five hungry kids.

Second option is to buy various types of flour and bake your own bread.  I have owned and used two or three bread machines over the years and the product they produced was a bit heavy but very delicious.  There is nothing better than fresh bread that finished baking a few minutes before the meal. You can let the machine do all the work or you can let it form the dough and then bake it in your own oven for a better shaped loaf. The nice thing about a bread machine is you can add whatever ingredients you want to create bread with specific nutritional content.  The price of bread machines has come down to the point where the pay-back point is probably pretty quick.  The unit shown here is only $59.00.  They do use electricity so there is a continuing cost to operate.  You can bake bread from any kind of flour and people with gluten allergies can still enjoy bread made from beans, dried peas, acorns, rice, and other non-grain flours. Some of these flours will not rise without adding other ingredients but you can search for that on your own. Search for bread machine

At the store you will see racks of flour for different baking needs.  There are bags of flour that say, "Better for Bread".  This is flour with a higher protein and gluten content.  It is the strands of protein and gluten that allow bread to rise. These flours are a little better but if they cost more they aren't really worth the price.  I like a heavy bread with texture so I feel like I am eating something; I'm not too fond of the light and airy breads. Do not waste your money on the pre-mixed bread machine flours.  There is nothing magical about them and they almost always cost significantly more than plain flour. Buy yourself (or go to the libray and borrow) a bread machine cookbook and make your own special bread mixes.  Write down what works well with the machine and ingredients that you have access to and go from there.

If you want to save even more money, and have a much more nutritious end product, you can buy your own grain and grind your own flour.  Flour mills are not cheap; you will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 - $300 depending on the type and quality of the mill.  A good mill, taken care of, will last 15-20 years easily.  The better ones are solidly built.  Most of them are very loud.  When milling flour, you should only mill what you are going to use within a few days.  Once a grain is ground to flour it is exposed to much more oxygen because of the larger surface area and destruction of the protective bran.  This quickly starts to degrade the nutrients.  Put any leftover flour in an airtight container and store it in the fridge. I have never used a home kitchen flour mill so I can't say much about them but I have used small industrial mills at a farm I once worked for.  We made a corn flake type product for feeding the cattle and we often ate a bowl fresh out of the mill and it was incredibly tasty.

Where do you get the grain to mill? Well, the easy place is a whole food store or health food store.  Many of them carry whole grains.  But you will pay a premium "hippie" price for the product.  Those stores mainly cater to a certain clientel that is willing to pay the price for "green", organic, or unusual foods.  Nothing wrong with that unless you are trying to Feed Yourself During Hard Times for less $$. Next option is to find out where the bread companies in your area buy their grains.  You can check online of course. An often overlooked source is your local feedmill.  Grains fed to livestock are just as good as what you will get from more traditional sources for human consumption.  You might have to clean a little more chaff out of it but otherwise it is fine to use. I highly recommend freezing your grain before you use it or store it to kill any insects.  Yes, there are insects in grain, including in the bread you have been eating all your life.

Glen Novinger's Dad Picking Corn
If corn bread and tortillas are your thing, and they are the easiest breads to make, feed corn, or field corn as we called it, is the same no matter the source.  This is one grain that you can grow and harvest yourself if you have a little bit of land and some time.  My family had a corn planter but not a corn harvestor.  In the fall, after the corn had dried on the stalk, my two sisters and I walked up and down the rows and picked many acres of corn by hand.  Nothing was left behind and wasted as when you use machinery to pick it. It is a bit of work but it was a nice time to talk and work outdoors after school and on the weekends.  "Corn Picking Bees" is what they used to be called and all corn was harvested this way years ago.  Some places still do it as a way of remembering the old farm ways.

LeMars Globe Post

Harvest corn at Raby farm
    A corn picking bee was held Nov. 10 at the home of Mrs. Chester Raby 9 miles west of Merrill. There were 10 pickers and 100 acres of corn was picked.
Mrs. Raby wishes to extend thanks to the many kind friends and neighbors who assisted with the picking, and helped in any other way since the death of her husband.
    Men who helped were Myrls Goodrich, Russel Anderson, Leonard Brown, Lyle Regan,
Roy Dreezen, Alvin Altrill, Harry Attrill, Herb Raby, Delbert Raby, Robert Fraser, Clarence Gloyer, Lawrence Hecht, Dennis Hecht, Wendell Parry, Ray Hoffman, John Blackmore, Charlie Rosenow, William De Rocher, Billy De Rocher. Jerry Dewey, Duane Dewey, Marvin Juzek, Charlie Juzek,  Earl Orr, Harold Beaulieu, Earl Graham, Wayne Lias, Paul Rollins, Alva Rollins, Armand Brown, Glen Trometer, Francis Baker, George Lehmann, Elmer Petty, Barwich Implement, Ralph Latham.

    Women who provided food and helped with the meals were Mrs. Henry Beaulieu, Mrs.
Pauline Lias, Mrs. Wendell Parry, Mrs. Harold Beaulieu, Mrs. Orel Banks, Mrs. Charles
Knapp, Mrs. Marvin Juzek, Mrs. Charlie Juzek. Mrs. Lester Dewey, Mrs.Charlie Rosenow, Mrs. Herb Raby, Mrs. Dennis Hecht, Mrs.Glen Trometer, Mrs. William
De Rocher, Mrs. Duane Dewe and Mrs. Robert Fraser.
    Others helping were Paul Bay, Faye Smitt, Don Waterbury, Loren Thurirger and Dolly Palmer who provided folding chairs.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Foraging in Late Summer - Early Fall

There is good foraging at this time of the year but what you are looking for is going to be more localized.  Unlike Spring Greens that are growing everywhere, what you find now is mostly tree-borne fruits and nuts.  They will not be as wide-spread as greens and berries.  What are we going to look at here? Nut trees. We'll look at apples, crab apples, and pears later.

Nut Trees:
Every part of the country has its own particular nut trees.  Right now I am living in The Netherlands and what is available to me here is English Walnuts and Hazelnuts. 

The English Walnut
The English Walnut tree is actually originally from Persia (Iran today) but grows all over the world thanks to domestic orchards.  All it took was a squirrel or some other animal to carry off a nut and bury it in the ground for the tree to get out in the wild.  These trees can grow to a very large size and they emit a natural herbicide that limits growth of other plants underneath them. 

The nuts are fairly round and protected by an outer husk and an inner hard shell.  The shell is not nearly as hard as the more common Black Walnut.  The nuts are ripe when the outer husks start to split and the inner nuts fall to the ground.  squirrels love walnuts of all types so it will be a race between you and them.  Somehow they seem to know which nuts are good and which are bad so late in the season any nuts left on the ground in an area with squirrels are probably no good but crack a few and see.  In my grandfather's biography he talks about collecting the nuts in the fall, shelling them, and laying out the meats to dry on newspaper in the attic.  He would stir them around each day so they would dry better and collect up the grubs or maggots (walnut weevils and husk fly maggots) that worked their way out of the nuts.  He used these for fishing.  I have collected and cracked wild nuts for years and have not really seen that many insects in them but I suppose it depends on where you live. If you dump your husked walnuts in a large container of water, the good nuts will sink.  Toss the ones that float.

Walnuts are highly nutritious but they also are high in (good) fats and calories.  Properly dried, air drying is fine if you don't live in a humid area, they will last for months.  I stored mine in old coffee cans with a few holes punched in the lid so moisture could escape.  I kept the cans in a cool, dry, dark space like the basement or refrigerator. Otherwise it is recommended that you store them in the freezer because the high oil content means they can go rancid (never happened to me though).

The following is an extract from a 1994 article by the Iowa State University:
    The nuts should be hulled immediately after they have been harvested. If the hulls are allowed to remain on for any length of time, the juice in the hull will discolor the nut meats and make them strong tasting. The stain also discolors skin, clothing, concrete, and anything else that it touches. There are various ways and devices to hull walnuts -- a cement mixer, corn sheller, automobile wheel, and squirrel cage are possibilities. Hulls can also be removed by stomping the nuts under foot or pounding with a hammer. After hulling, thoroughly wash the nuts to remove hull debris and juices. Small quantities can be washed in a large bucket or tub. At this time, the good nuts can be sorted from the bad ones. Unfilled nuts float while filled nuts sink. (Rubber gloves should be worn when hulling and cleaning to prevent staining of the hands.)
    After washing and sorting, allow the nuts to dry for two or three weeks. An excellent way to dry nuts is on a wire screen. Spread the nuts in shallow layers (no more than three nuts deep) and dry them in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area. A shed or garage is usually a good place to dry walnuts.
    The walnut has one of the toughest and thickest shells to crack. While nuts can be cracked with a variety of tools, the hammer and nutcracker are most commonly used. The hammer method involves placing the nut, pointed end up, on a hard surface and striking the point with the hammer until it weakens and splits into sections along its axis. Several nut cracking tools are also available. When cracking nuts, shattering of the kernels is often a problem. Shattering can be reduced by soaking the nuts in water for 1 or 2 hours before cracking. The soaking process allows the kernels to absorb enough moisture to become somewhat flexible, resulting in larger kernel pieces. The kernels are extracted from the nutshell with a pick and a pair of pliers.
    The oils in walnut kernels will turn rancid if nuts are stored improperly. After the kernels have been removed, place them in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. The nut meats will keep almost indefinitely when stored in the freezer. Kernels can be stored for short periods in the refrigerator.

Take serious heed to the warning about the juice staining everything.  I used to boil my traps and hunting gear in walnut hulls and water to stain them brown and remove human scent.  It is a serious stain; nothing will get it out.

I am still a few weeks out from being able to harvest walnuts so now I am writing down where I see the trees so I can go back to them later.  I check them every week or so to see how the nuts are doing.  This will be a great year for nuts here; the trees are loaded.

Black Walnuts:
Black Walnuts grow in deep, rich, bottomland soils.  They can grow to be massive trees.  There were Black Walnut trees on my family's farm that were four feet in diameter.  The nuts grow in clusters on branches with long, multiple leaflets. 

Black walnuts are tougher to extract the nuts from than the English Walnut.  The husks have a much darker stain.  Fortunately, the husks practically dissolve once they are on the ground for a while.  Wear rubber gloves to pick them up and wash them in a large drum or tube to get all the husk bits off.  Then let them dry for a couple weeks in the shell.  The only way I have ever been able to get the meats out is to smash the shell with a hammer and then pick out the bits of meat with a nut pick. Be very careful to separate all the bits of shell because biting down on even a small piece could easily break a tooth (been there, done that).  My father-in-law had a short piece of railroad track that he used for breaking Hickory nuts.  I had a small piece of I-beam.  Storage of the nut meats is the same as for the English Walnut. 

The Butternut, sometimes called the White Walnut, is closely related to the Walnut and Hickory nut trees. Butternut grows best on stream banks and on well-drained soils. It is seldom found on dry, compact, or infertile soils. It grows better than black walnut, however, on dry, rocky soils, especially those of limestone origin. I knew of three Butternut trees when I was a kid and they all produced very tasty nuts.  Those trees are long gone unfortunately.  Most Butternut trees have been killed off by canker and fungal infections.  Keep it a secret if you find one. Well, actually, you should tell your local forestry service.  They might want to check the genetics of the tree if it has some natural immunity.

The Butternut is more oblong than the other nuts and the shell inside is also distinct. I cannot remember if they were hard to shell or not.  The outer husk usually fell away.  I often broke the shells with a rock when I was in the area that they grew. The meats of a Butternut are sweeter and have a rich buttery flavor.  If you can find one of these trees you are very fortunate.

Hickory trees were planted and tended to on old farmsteads because of the high value of the tree.  The wood was exceptional for tool handles, wheel spokes, farming equipment, skis, baseball bats and other sports' equipment, paddles and oars,etc.  Hickory wood was used for smoking meats and due to its high BTU content was preferred for woodstoves and ovens. The nuts are delicious but smaller than the other tree nuts so a bit of a bother to harvest and shell (but worth the effort).  The outer husks will split open on the tree and the nuts will partially dry before they fall.  Squirrels love these nuts so you must be quick.  The shells are usually quite clean so once the husks fall away there is little mess and staining is not such a big problem.  Harvesting, shelling, and storing are much the same as for other nuts. 

If you are in your twenties or thirties it would be well worth your time to collect and bury excess hickory nuts and try to get more trees growing in your area.  They grow very tall but will start producing nuts in ten years or so; maybe quicker in ideal conditions.  You will often find these trees growing in the woodlines separating two properties on old farms.  You can buy young trees to get a jump on the growing cycle.  The price shown here is very good.

In some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains and others, one quarter of the hardwoods were chestnuts. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet (15 m), and in total up to 100 feet, averaging up to 5 feet in diameter. For three centuries, most barns and homes east of the Mississippi River were made from Chestnut timbers and boards.  In 1911, the famous food book The Grocer's Encyclopedia noted that a cannery in Holland included in its "vegetables-and-meat" ready-cooked combinations, a "chestnuts and sausages" casserole besides the more classic "beef and onions" and "green peas and veal". This to celebrate the chestnut culture that would bring whole villages out in the woods for three weeks each autumn (and keep them busy all winter), and to deplore the lack of food diversity in the United States's shop shelves.

But soon after that, the American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by chestnut blight. The discovery of the blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York was made public in 1904. Within 40 years, the near-four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated; only a few clumps of trees remained in California and the Pacific Northwest. Due to disease, American chestnut wood almost disappeared from the market for decades, although quantities can still be obtained as reclaimed lumber. Today, they only survive as single trees separated from any others (very rare), and as living stumps, or "stools", with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds shortly before dying. This is just enough to preserve the genetic material used to engineer an American chestnut tree with the minimal necessary genetic input from any of the disease-immune Asiatic species. Efforts started in the 1930s are still ongoing to repopulate the country with these trees.  If you find a wild Chestnut please notify your forestry service so they can take genetic samples to help restore this once grand tree to our forests.

Hazelnuts or Filberts:
This tree or bush really is not as common in the US as it is in Europe.  Hazels were used as hedgerows and to grow "coppice".  The nut is know as a Hazelnut or Filbert depending on where you live.  As a kid I knew it as a Filbert Nut. It is one of my favorite nuts for eating and is the primary ingredient of Nutella.  The plant normally grows in bush form but if trimmed and cared for will grow in tree form as well.  In the states you might find some of these growing in the wild if a squirrel or bird carries off a nut from bird or wild animal feed. They might also be found growing on abandoned farms.

The leaves and seed pod are very distinct; once you see one you will immediately know what it is. They are commercially grown in Oregon and Washington state so those might be areas where you could more easily find them in the wild as well.  Again, all it takes is a squirrel or other animal to carry off a few nuts and bury them to get some growing.

If you were planning on growing nut trees for your own food production I would recommend the Hazelnut over all others.  It grows quicker and will produce nuts years before the other tree nuts.  Hazels will start to produce nuts in their third or fourth year and be in full production by the sixth year if you plant plants from a nursery.   A good site for the basics of growing and harvesting Hazelnuts is: Hazelnuts

A good set of nut picks is essential if you are going to forage for any wild nuts.